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Theo received his diploma in Liberal Studies with a concentration in education last September. He is now the Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins lead academic tutor for incoming students. (Patrick Keaveny/Jesuit Refugee Service)

(Dzaleka) July 3, 2014 — While most of the 18,000 people living in Dzaleka refugee camp dream of leaving, 23 residents have taken the initiative to turn this not-so-temporary camp into a community.

The 23 are recent graduates of Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM). For three years, they took five eight-week online courses earning themselves a diploma in Liberal Studies, with a concentration in either business or education, from Regis University. Since graduating last September, they are now using their newly acquired skills to give back.

For the refugees — who had fled persecution in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda — an American university diploma was not something they ever expected would be available to them in this dusty camp, 45km from the Malawian capital, Lilongwe.

Partnering with Regis University, the joint initiative with Jesuit Refugee Service offers online education and on-the-ground support from tutors in both Dzaleka and Kakuma camps as well as to urban refugees in Amman, Jordan. The program will be made available to marginalized persons in Burma, Chad, Sri Lanka and on the Thai-Burma border by 2018.

Because the courses take place on an online portal, refugees share classes and interact with other students from around the world.

"It was a wonderful experience because in our cohort [in Dzaleka] we didn't have students from Ethiopia, Sudan, or Somalia but in Kakuma [in Kenya] they did, so we had the chance to learn cross culturally and to apply their perspectives and experiences to our understanding of the material,” said graduate Karenzi.

Unique set of challenges. Completing university coursework in a refugee camp comes with obstacles not found on other college campuses.

"We faced many difficulties in attaining our education, like having to wake up at 5am to tend to the fields or trying to study at home without electricity or light. Some of us have six or four kids to take care of.

"In 2010 it seemed we were swimming against the tide but we managed to get our degrees. I never even dreamed I would be able to manage the work load but now whenever I face a challenge in my life I have confidence to research, to think, and seek solutions to these problems. This is really the fruit of being part of JC:HEM," said Theo, who graduated in the first cohort and is now the JC:HEM lead academic tutor.

Lessons in problem solving. The graduates have taken Theo's advice; many solve problems by organizing grassroots activities in their communities.

JC:HEM graduates Karenzi and Jackson, for instance, launched an organic community garden with other graduates to help solve the problem of destructive farming techniques and food insecurity.

"Too often in Malawi farmers use chemicals and fertilizers that damage for the soil. After graduation, I started to teach gardening and permaculture techniques to women and single mothers so they could grow vegetables and other crops without chemicals.

I was trying to see how people could use their resources to grow their own food and not depend on outside support. Now we are also teaching women to recycle charcoal for cooking", said Jackson, who also works for a primary school and a respite care centre.

Projects like the community garden resemble the type of initiatives that Tom Schrieber, JC:HEM site director, hoped the graduates would develop.

"We can't guarantee that our graduates will find jobs, but we can encourage them to use their skills to start initiatives and communicate with their community. If they need more support we're happy to provide it,” he said.

Moving forward. Despite the long journey these refugees have taken to attain their degrees, start new initiatives with their community and improve their circumstances, the reality of life in the camp persists.

With few exceptions, refugees are prohibited by law from leaving the camp to seek employment, leaving their potential for success confined within the fences of Dzaleka.

"A Jesuit education has transformed us from learners into community leaders… but we find so many ways on the path are blocked…. For our community in the camp to develop, we not only need skills but we also need good laws, policies, leaders, and sponsors for our projects….

In Congo, some people had gold in the ground but they didn't have skills and the knowhow to dig it up. Here we are living in poverty, but we have skills, we have the gold", said JRS adult community education leader and JC:HEM graduate, Bengehya.

The graduates are determined, however, to mine their ‘gold.’

"We're the first people to graduate from JC:HEM, but it doesn't mean we're the first people to understand how these communities are run. We're here just because we've survived these systems and we'll never lose our courage and motivation to move forward,” said Theo.

Angela Wells
JRS International Communications Assistant

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